In the closing weeks of the Metropolitan Opera's New York season, the company offered two productions that will be featured on the spring tour. One is the venerable old "L'Elisir d'Amore" this time with Luciano Pavarotti and Judith Blegen, and last year's magnificent "Billy Budd."
Many thought that Benjamin Britten's opera about occurrences on the HMS Indomitable would never "sell" at the Met, yet this production of "Billy Budd" has been one of the great successes of the new regime and John Dexter's only fully successful Met production to date.
Dexter's particular triumph is in translating an intimate opera to the vast stage of the Met. William Dudley's ship stern set is an important part of that success. That stern section rises and splits and rises to reveal areas and rooms below decks (even the prison hold where Budd awaits hanging) and, at the height of the skirmish, it rises into four stepped sections -- breathtakingly theatrical.
What the production lacks in height -- masts and rigging are not a part of this ship, so one loses a sense of the sheer scope of activity on an 18 th-century man-of-war -- it compensates for with a very carefully studied series of characterizations right down the line from major to minor roles in this large cast.
Last season, Sir Peter Pears sang the role he created in this opera -- that of Captain Vere. This year it has fallen to Richard Cassilly who is magnificent. To hear the music sung by such a large voice is a revelation (much as "Grimes" has been ever since Jon Vickers first assumed the part that was also written for Mr. Pears). Cassilly's tenor can encompass a resplendent calm, a chilling snarl, and a savage fury that only renders Vere's inability to act decisively all the more convincing.
Richard Stillwell's Budd was, at the final, matinee performance of the season , underscaled vocally, and somewhat artificial histrionically. James Morris's Claggart is superbly evil, though by having this character so young adds a sexual tension to the conflict of good vs. evil that it quite simply does not need. But Morris's is an interpretation that has grown immeasurable vocally and histrionically, a fresh, bold, insinuating characterization. The rest of the cast remains the same, with the exception of Julien Robbins who has taken over the role of Ratcliffe quite handsomely. In lesser parts, John Davies's young bass continues to impress.
In the pit, Raymond Leppard has a vise-tight grasp on the flow and tightness of the score, and his ear for color has grown remarkably since last season. As a total production, the Met has done nothing finer in recent years, right down to Gil Wechlser's lighting.
Would that the "L'Elisir" was on the same level. But this standard piece of marvelous Donizetti was given very short shift. Pavarotti was in fine voice, though it is now a heavier, darker timbre than what was once so ideal in this music. That said, his performance was projected to the furthest reaches of the house, on a grand scale -- glorious, funny, endearing. He was the only luminous body in a cast that collectively could barely emit a faint glow. Judith Blegen appeared to have problems projecting voice, characterization, or even personality at any point in the evening. Mario Sereni's Belcore proved notably on the waning side of routine. Domenico Trimarchi offered neither the voice nor the presence to be considered a true buffo artist. And Nicola Rescigno kept things moving but with intermittent lapses of ensemble.
In the closing weeks of the season, the Met introduced an important singer to the house -- Christiane Eda-Pierre as Konstanze in Mozart's "Die Entfurung aus dem Serail." Her's is a marvelously clear and open voice from very top to bottom , one that could tackle the fierce hurdles of "Martern aller Arten" -- probably the most difficult aria in all soprano literature -- with expressive ease.
She is not the most animated actress, nor is the voice always smooth in the very long lines of some of the music, but in this day of general vocal unpreparedness, Miss Eda-Pierre is a real treasure.
Also a treasure is Kathleen Battle, the Blondchen. Her delicate lyric soprano fits the music delectably, and her entire presence radiates charm, warmth, and beauty. This artist should be nurtured with special care and encouraged to grow.
John Alexander's Belmonte may not have been the last word in Mozartean style, but this fine artist never gives a truly unrewarding performance, and he was in even mellow voice. James Atherton found the higher reaches of Pedrillo a constant, tiring struggle, though he was more than personable. Ara Berberian is a comedian of very limited resources, with a voice that is surely not at its best in Mozart, thus his Osmin went virtually for naught.
The Jocelyn Hebert sets are stunning and could still use more subtle lighting. James Levine's approach to the score was ebullient, vital, and just ever so slightly over-pushed, but he certainly demonstrates that this opera can work at the Met and -- even with the casting problems now and earlier -- be a thoroughly enjoyable event.